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Forget Everything You Know About California Pinot Noir

Food & Wine
January 29, 2018
By Brian Freedman

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Here are 12 bottles to help you rethink this popular grape.

We’ve all heard it before; maybe we have even been guilty of uttering the words ourselves:

California Pinot Noir? It’s just too fruity, and everyone knows that Burgundy is so much better.

I never drink sparkling wine—it’s too expensive and gives me a headache.

I don’t like Merlot—it’s way too soft and unsophisticated.

None of these stereotypes are true, but that doesn’t stop otherwise open-minded individuals from uttering them when the time comes to choose which bottle of wine to open.

It’s so easy to inaccurately stereotype grape varieties, to mischaracterize entire categories of wine, that it’s one of the main reasons consumers are often reluctant to break out of their vinous comfort zones. As a result, unfortunately, they miss out on a lot of great juice in the process.

This, then, is the first piece in a series that will explore the myths surrounding wine — and hopefully help to debunk them — beginning with California Pinot Noir.

So let’s just get the stereotype out of the way first: California Pinot Noir is anything but the homogeneously fruity, somewhat boozy, always-earlier-drinking-and-one-dimensional shadow of Burgundy that it’s still too often assumed to be. (Maybe—maybe—that was once the case, but it sure isn’t now.) Just look at where it’s grown in the Golden State: From Mendocino to Santa Barbara, and from the Sonoma Coast, with its exposure to the vagaries of the sea and its weather, to the more inland Sierra Foothills, California Pinot Noir can’t possibly be painted with a broad brush and still be spoken of accurately.

Jamie Kutch, one of the most exciting producers of the variety in California, agrees. “A major misperception about California Pinot Noir is that just one style of wine exists,” he explained in an email, “fruity, ripe, sweet, and high in alcohol. This couldn’t be more untrue today with so many regions, producers, climates, and soil types all producing a huge diversity of characteristics.” His stellar range of Pinot Noir exemplifies that. Kutch specializes in Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast, (he also has an excellent Mendocino Ridge bottling, and some great Chardonnay, too), and his single-vineyard bottlings, even from the same vintage, is each a wholly unique and vivid expression of the tremendous range of terroir even within a single AVA.

This is happening all over California, with individual producers bottling Pinots from individual vineyards and even from different parts of single vineyards, all in an effort to mine the full potential of the grape variety and the land itself. (And don’t discount wines that are blends of Pinot from various AVAs—there are some excellent ones out there.)

Indeed, California is such an exciting place for Pinot Noir right now because of the range of microclimates and soils in which it can be grown. Differences in elevations, underlying geology, exposures to the ocean, fog, daytime sun, evening chill, divergent winemaking philosophies, and more continue to create a stunning mosaic of Pinot Noirs throughout California. Really, the only stereotype that consumers should be peddling in right now when it comes to California Pinot Noir is this one: It’s as exciting a time as it has ever been for these wines no matter what style you prefer. It’s a broad brush-stroke, to be sure, but accurate, and one we can all agree upon.

Here are a dozen wines, listed alphabetically, that embody all of the excitement of Pinot Noir in the state right now. If you can’t find these particular ones, fear not: Just explore the shelves of your local wine shop. The possibilities, and the potential to be charmed, are infinite.    

Inman Family Pinot Noir Pratt Vine Hill 2014 Russian River Valley

Rich yet graceful, with layers of wild mountain berries, Chinese five-spice, underbrush, and violets whispering through the finish.